Are starlings taking over?

According to a recent story on the BBC, the answer is “yes, they are.”

“Starlings are lean and mean. In the industry they’re often called feathered bullets,” says Michael Begier, National Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.

“They’re a particular problem at airports because they flock in very large numbers, and compared to other birds their bodies are very dense. They are about 27% more dense than a herring gull which is a much larger bird.”

When a flock of starlings strikes an airplane the effects can be devastating. In 1960 they caused the most deadly bird strike in US aviation history

The birds flew into the engines of a plane as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, and it crashed into the harbour, killing 62 people on board.

Starlings also cost US agriculture an estimated $1bn (£595m) a year in damage to crops – particularly fruit trees.

They can even cause milk production to drop at dairy farms because they steal the grain being fed to cows.

Taken on a recent visit to Central Park, NYC, these fellows are direct descendants of those first 80 to 100 first starlings.

Taken on a recent visit to Central Park, NYC, these fellows are direct descendants of those first 80 to 100 first starlings.

 

If you look at any bird book or website you can see that they are common all across the United States.  We have a few in our neighborhood and for many years I’ve watched from the bedroom window as a pair (probably not the same ones!) nest in an air vent in the house next door.  OK, so they are kinda mean and can be a problem but they are beautiful up close and fun to watch when they occasionally visit our feeders.  The purplish black spotted bird is technically the European Starling.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology it all begins with Shakespeare.

First brought to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the nineteenth century, European Starlings are now among the continent’s most numerous songbirds. They are stocky black birds with short tails, triangular wings, and long, pointed bills. Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, they’re still dazzling birds when you get a good look. Covered in white spots during winter, they turn dark and glossy in summer. For much of the year, they wheel through the sky and mob

  • All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds [the BBC says there were 80] set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.
  • Because of their recent arrival in North America, all of our starlings are closely related. Genetically, individuals from Virginia are nearly indistinguishable from starlings sampled in California, 3,000 miles away. Such little genetic variation often spells trouble for rare species, but seems to offer no ill effects to starlings so far.

So why are starlings Shakespearean?  The BBC says they are mentioned in Henry IV Part 1

Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion,” Shakespeare wrote.

This might actually not be so much of a fantasy as they, like the Northern Mockingbird are mimics according to the ornithologists at Cornell.

Starlings are great vocal mimics: individuals can learn the calls of up to 20 different species. Birds whose songs starlings often copy include the Eastern Wood-Pewee, Killdeer, meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Northern Flicker, and many others.

So maybe Henry could have taught a starling to speak the name of Mortimer

Close-up of a handsome starling

Close-up of a handsome starling

Photograph of flock:  Robert L. Wyckoff

Photograph of single starling:  Lisa Bradley for the BBC.

Birds and seeds: change and diversity

Maybe it is just what seems to be a very long, cold winter (As I start writing this it is snowing again, but I hope not for long.) that is getting to me but I’m thinking this morning about natural ebbs and flows of plants and animals and the influence of man for both good and bad.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

We participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count every year and they are reporting some preliminary findings from February’s count.

Although much more data have yet to be recorded, here are some of the trends noted so far.

  • Fewer Finches After last year’s “superflight,” this year’s GBBC reports for 10 irruptive species (mostly finches) are down considerably. This includes reports for the White-winged and Red crossbills, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Bohemian Waxwings. These are believed to be natural fluctuations in numbers because of variation in seed crops.
  •  Snowy Owl Invasion Continues A massive irruption of Snowy Owls into the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes States of the U.S., as well as southeastern Canada, is easily seen in GBBC numbers. Preliminary results show participants reported more than 2,500 Snowy Owls in 25 states and 7 provinces of the U.S. and Canada!
  • The Polar Vortex Effect The frigid cold in many parts of North America has resulted in unusual movements of waterfowl and grebes. With the Great Lakes almost completely frozen, some species, such as the White-winged Scoter and the Long-tailed Duck, have fled the frozen lakes and stopped at inland locations where they are not usually found at this time of year.

The trends just naturally change from year to year.  But the mention of seed crops brings me to this story that caught my eye.  Seed Libraries.  I’ve heard of some companies starting to grow more variety of plants for seed and of the seed vault where seeds are being kept in case one day we need to start over, but not of seed libraries.  The Boston Globe reported

A basic principle of any library is that you return what you take out. By that standard, the new scheme at Hampshire College’s library is a roll of the dice. Since last November, librarians have been lending out packets of seeds, allowing people to plant them, and checking them back in if—and only if—the borrower manages to grow thriving plants in the meantime.

The Hampshire College project is part of a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.

A seed library

A seed library

The concept is pretty simple:  You check out some seeds, plant them, let some of them go to seed and then return the seeds.  But there is always the chance that you won’t get back the same variety.

“Self-pollinating” plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce have both male and female parts in the same flower, so they tend to predictably produce seeds that grow the exact same kind of plant. But “open-pollinating” plants like squashes and corn require pollen to travel from one plant to another—and there’s a significant chance that pollen from some other variety of plant, borne by wind or insect, will get in and create an unwanted hybrid. Katie Campbell-Nelson, vegetable extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that one year she planted kale too close to collard greens. She saved seeds from that year’s harvest, and, “The kale I got next year was just this bitter horrible cross.”

Why is plant diversity important?  Think about the Irish Potato Famine.

The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of massively grow-able varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century as farmers have moved to high-yielding, genetically modified seeds. This dependence on a few kinds of plants leaves our food supply not only genetically impoverished, but also more vulnerable to blight. (Peru, which grew many varieties of potatoes, survived the potato blight much better than Ireland, which grew only one.)

One of the many reasons I’m looking forward to summer is the re-opening of local farmer’s markets and the opportunity to try new varieties.  Plant diversity is another reason to grow and buy locally.

The Polar Vortex (and who had ever heard of it before this winter) has changed the migration and winter nesting of some birds, but man also changes patterns with building, clearing for agriculture, dams, and other structures.  Factory farms lead to less diversity in what we can purchase and eat and can lead to blight requiring more pesticides and fertilizer.  This impacts every thing that eats whatever is grown this way.  I know we will never go back to the era when everything was grown on the family farm – there are just too many of us and more and more of us are living in urban areas – but being aware never hurts.

Photograph:  Northern Cardinal Ella Clem

Photograph:  Seed Library: Lesley Becker/Globe staff

Globe Story:  Kevin Hartnett

Red-tailed hawks on Fort Hill

The other day I saw a large bird perched in one of the maple trees near our back porch/balcony.  It’s a tree that many blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals and house sparrows use as a staging area before swooping down to the feeders and window boxes we keep filled with seed.  The light wasn’t too good and the bird didn’t look all that big.  The first day, we thought it was some kind of hawk, but couldn’t see the colors.  The second day, I could clearly see the white breast and dark back.  Eastern Kingbird?  Folks on the Great Backyard Bird Count Facebook page said too early in the season for a kingbird.  Maybe a Sharp-shinned hawk.

This afternoon, we saw the bird up close – like just on the other side of the kitchen window close.  It was clearly an immature Red Tailed Hawk.  We always leave our Christmas tree tied to the porch rail and it is still green and has most of its needles.  The sparrows use it for shelter.  And they needed it today!  When the Red-tail  flew by the first time, some of the 50-60 house sparrows flew away.  But when he landed on the porch, the tree held maybe 10 of them chirping away.  For about 2 minutes, my husband, Mr. Bunter (one of our cats), and I watched the poor red-tail trying to figure out how to catch one of the sparrows.  He flew from one window box to the other.  He tried to shimmy down one of the porch rail posts near the tree.  He landed on the table under the window so he could study us and the birds in the tree.

When he flew off for a second, probably to re-group, the sparrows made their escape.  When he came back, there was no more chirping in the tree.  No lunch today for Mr. Red-tail.  And later, my husband, watched 3 hawks circling the park and flying off in the direction of Jamaica Plain.

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk

A number of years ago, a mature red-tail swooped on to the porch and grabbed a rock dove (pigeon) and proceeded to eat the entire bird while we watched.  I think he left a couple of feathers. We also had a young red-tail fly into a neighbor’s open window.  The Audubon and Animal Rescue people were called and he was rescued unhurt.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Red-tailed Hawks are the most common kind.  One sees them circling around when you are driving along the interstates or on back roads.  But we’ve been lucky to have see two of them close up.

Photograph from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site, All About Birds.

Dovekie in Roxbury (Corrected)

[This post has been edited to correct the Laura Ingalls Wilder reference (I had the wrong book) and to expand with some quotes from The Long Winter.]

The dovekie is an Arctic bird that plays off the coast of New England near Georges’ Bank in the winter but I don’t think one has ever been found in my neighborhood before.  The Boston Globe had the story  and picture on last Friday. 

The dovekie, called a little auk in Europe, was dropped off at the Boston Rescue 2 firehouse on Columbus Avenue in Egleston Square on Thursday night, said Greg Conlan, a firefighter with Rescue 2.

Conlan said the small bird was brought into the station at 7 p.m. by three 10-year-old children.

The bird, which was in a box, looked plump but exhausted, he said.

“It looked tired. It definitely wasn’t going anywhere, but it wasn’t on its last leg or anything,” he said.

Firefighters named the dovekie Olive, the name given to every animal that comes through the firehouse, Conlan said. There is a cat and a turtle living at the station, both with the name Olive.

Here is Olive in her box.

Dovekie

The bird was transported to the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said.

Wayne Petersen, director of the Important Bird Areas program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, received a call from the wildlife center this morning asking for advice about where to release the bird, he said.

“The bird was obviously blown into the city by the big storm on Thursday,” Petersen said. “It’s a species that once it’s on the ground, they have great difficulty taking off.”

He advised the caretakers to release Olive in waters not heavily populated by gulls, because the small bird could be prey for larger species.

The nice thing about the story is that 3 10 year old boys were thoughtful enough to try to take care of the dovekie by trying to feed it crackers [I’m sure they feed pigeon being city kids.] and then bringing it to the fire station.

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, The Long Winter, a little auk lands near their house and the family releases it off Silver Lake.  “They had never seen a bird like it.  It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, ‘The Wonders of The Animal World’.”  The little auk had been found in a haystack.  The next day Pa, Laura, and Mary go to release the bird.

He squatted down by the thin white ice at the lake’s edge and reaching far out he tipped the little bird from his hand into the blue water.  For the briefest instant, there it was, and then it wasn’t there.  Our amoung the ice cakes it was streaking, a black speck.

“It gets up speed, with those webbed feet,” said Pa, “to lift it from the….There it goes!”

This is the only other time I can remember hearing about them in unusual places.

No word yet on a successful release here in Boston, but we have been having a snow/rain and now wind storm for the last 24 hours so probably no one has tried yet.

Little auks when not in Egleston Square.

Little Auks

Little Auks (Photo credit: Alastair Rae)